Sunday, 5 April 2015

Feeling Bad about Feeling Good

I've been wondering what kind of person I am, examining self critically my response to Louise's death and the way in which I am mourning. In the last few days I have generally been calmer. There have been moments in each day when I have keenly felt Louise's loss and the tears have flowed. Just seeing a couple kissing in the street was enough to cause me to break down, there and then, prompting me to rush for the nearest cover to hide my tears from passers by. But outside of these moments I am relatively emotionally stable.

Its not as if I'm not thinking about Louise the rest of the time, that somehow everything is magically better. Louise remains on my mind almost the entire day and the vast majority of my waking time is still spent talking, thinking and writing about her. This makes me sad and wistful but often without a great deal of  raw distress and high emotion. I am functioning relatively normally other than for the lethargy which continues to weigh me down. Increasingly I find myself slightly puzzled by the shock and sympathy expressed by those who I talk to for the first time since Louise's death. I find it difficult to understand why it is warranted.

So why is this? I spend hours online reading about others experience of bereavement, absorbed in a small community unseen by the rest of the world which is brought together by the commonality of loss and grief. I know that comparisons between individuals are unhelpful, that no sure timeline can be plotted through the stages of bereavement, that our ability to cope fluctuates wildly from day to day and week to week. But I can't help wondering why at this particular point, ten weeks on, many people seem to be experiencing emotions much more sharply than I am.

Objectively I should be pleased, congratulating myself on my resilience and relieved that I am not experiencing worse. But it actually  troubles me greatly. I actively want to grieve, need to grieve, in order to demonstrate to Louise the genuine depth of my love for her and the extent to which I feel her loss. I worry that if I do not she might mistake my apparent ability to cope with day to day life with indifference towards her, lack of love and concern. That is why I find myself worrying about the first day when no tears come and am almost relieved whenever I cry. While I do not want to feel miserable, I want to see a way to a future where things seem brighter, equally I do not want to allow myself to let go of the acute sense of loss and grief. It continues to bind me to Louise as strongly as we were connected in life. It is a precious emotional link which I do not want severed. 

On one level I know that this is all irrational. That Louise, always an extremely acute observer of human nature, would understand better than most that grief is not measured by tears alone, and that textbook responses to bereavement are not the only proof of love. She has no wish to see me suffer and would be delighted if I adjusted rapidly to her loss and was able to  achieve some kind of equilibrium. I know too that my emotional ties to Louise will always remain, as time goes by they will simply be reframed in more positive terms. Grief and tears were not what brought us together as a couple or held us together and I will eventually find new and more appropriate ways of connecting with her memory.

But despite this insight I can't help myself thinking critically about the way I sometimes feel and behave. It is impossible not to feel guilty and ashamed about every moment when I seem to find myself able to live life without Louise.

In those moments when I feel as though I am coping well, I ask myself if I am unfeeling, that I don’t care? That I didn’t really love Louise? That everything I have said and done about her has been false testimony, perhaps unconsciously designed to meet societal expectations of the bereaved partner? Even at my most self critical I can see that is utterly absurd. So why the discrepancy? Is it because those people I measure myself against are atypical in their own emotional responses? That seems highly unlikely.  Is it because I’m unusually strong and resilient? People sometimes tell me that I am  remarkably strong but this makes me feel a fraud. They don't see me when the front door closes and I break down. I don't feel strong then.

I think that there are two explanations. The first is that I have normalised the experience of the past ten weeks in order to better cope with it. It happened, its part of my reality so I know no different now. Doesn't everybody find their partner dead in such circumstances after only a relatively short time together? I genuinely find it difficult to understand how it can be when I meet a couple who have been together for 20 years (20 whole years together!) or I come across a husband whose wife is much beyond the age of 40 - surely they are incredibly lucky, they are the exceptions, not Louise and I. Nobody sees themselves as being outside the normal experience, or a vulnerable victim of tragedy. Its not a nice place to be. Surrounding myself with people who have experienced similar loss and at a similar age also helps to reinforce the comforting impression in my mind that these things are not so unusual. This accounts for my inability to grasp why people are shocked at events.

But the biggest truth is simply that I cannot absorb what has happened. Either that Louise has died or the way that she died. Whenever I think back to that night, the moments spent frantically trying to get into the house, entering through the conservatory just knowing for certain that I was going to see Louise hanging from the bannisters  and trying to steel myself for the sight, and the desperate sometimes hysterical  time afterwards with the paramedics and Police, it all seems utterly unreal. I can recall every moment but almost as if it were an out of body experience, or as if I was watching it all on video. It just didn’t really happen to me. And neither have the past 10 weeks. The self protective layer of disbelief is still as strong as ever and it is only when it is pierced that the sheer enormity and tragedy of what has happened hits me.

I know that I keep returning to this theme but it is the most consistent of my experience of bereavement. I still struggle  to grasp that somebody so close to me, so full of life, can be dead. How can it be when I see Louise's face looking back at me so alive and happy in photos every day, when her glasses are still on the kitchen worktop, when her clothes are still folded on the back of the chair in our bedroom, when her mobile phone is still next to the stereo unit, when notes in her handwriting are still stuck to the fridge door? Death happens to the old, the physically ill, the victims of disasters and wars overseas. To others. Not to my Louise. The transition from one state to another, from life to death, may take an instant but it seems as if for those left behind it takes a whole lifetime to understand. Ten weeks on I am still numbed. If I could really grasp that I will never see Louise again I would be in pieces all the time. Even as I write this I am unable to get my head around the concept. Its not that I am in denial. I can accept what has happened on a theoretical level. Its simply that I am unable to comprehend the consequences.  


When I wrote this post last night I was feeling strong and resilient and guilty for doing so. But today, ironically, I woke up in a completely different place. Scared, lonely, tearful, exhausted. Its a lovely sunny Easter Sunday and in normal circumstances we would have been out visiting family or friends or doing something together outdoors. Loving life and each other.  Instead I have found it difficult even to get out of bed, paralysed by my grief. I certainly have no reason today to worry about doing 'too well'. It illustrates the unpredictable, apparently arbitrary way in which these moods can sweep across me, often catching me unawares.

Both the ups and the downs are equally authentic responses to the position I find myself in. Opposite but freely interchangeable. And they both lead me to question myself. I wrote above that it is impossible not to feel guilty and ashamed about every moment when I seem to find myself able to live life without Louise. That is true. But then I feel equally guilty and ashamed when my distress and emotion catches up with me to the extent that it disables me. I worry about what Louise would think of me then too. But in this case its because I fear she would be sad at my weakness rather than my strength. It seems as though my over active mind won't let me have any peace at present.



  1. Just wrote a very long comment and it all got deleted.

    So in simpler terms, I relate to most things you say here. A fellow over thinker who finds it difficult to grasp the moment and the reality of it all due to a constantly questioning mind. Had a self hatred break down this week because of it and I wouldn't wish it on anyone to have to experience that feeling of questioning if you are cold hearted because you don't feel it (due to all the numbness, thinking, ridiculousness of it all) and then enjoying crying (but not really?) because it shows you do. It's a horrible whirlwind because it feels like you can never win.

    Can doubt yourself easily but this blog you are doing shows that you just express yourself through thought more than anything and that is an emotion in itself. Thinking of you. Katie x

  2. Thanks for your kind words Katie. The 'ridiculousness of it all' is a good summary. Everything that happens seems so far fetched, so unlikely, so unbelievable, that it's almost absurd. But just as deep down I know that logically my self criticism is unfair and unjustified I know that yours is too. As you say, the very fact that we spend so much time writing, reading and thinking about what has happened to our partners and, by extension to ourselves, is ample proof of just how much we care. My thoughts and prayers are with you through your own journey. Be gentle on yourself.

  3. Hi Gary,

    First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. Even as a widow myself, I never quite know what to say to people. Strange. We should know, of all people.

    You write beautifully about your feelings but this post in particular struck a chord with me. I have written almost exactly the same blog post 4 years ago ( You want to cry because it confirms you really loved someone. At least it does in your own mind. At times, I would deliberately seek out things that made me cry, as if to tell myself: see, you DID care and you really did love her. And just like you, I would feel 'ok' one day and doubt myself, only to feel utterly horrid the next day. How do you know which of those two feelings is the 'real' one?

    Not sure what I am trying to say, really. Other than the trite stuff that you grieve the way you see fit. And if you are happy one day and desperately sad the next, that is fine. Take things as they come and find your own way. Because your way is the best way.

  4. Hi, thanks for your kind words, and particularly the link to your blog post. You are right, the sentiments expressed are identical and there is comfort and reassurance in that. I found myself nodding throughout as I read your piece. I know very well too the need to seek out something to make me cry in order to validate my feelings, to prove the extent of my love, sadness and loss. Its completely irrational because I know that Louise was/is far too wise to judge the depth of grief on something as superficial as the volume of tears. She knew very well how much I loved her, our family and friends knew very well how much I loved her, and I know better than them all, but still I punish myself with these expectations. I guess it stems partly from a desperate need to maintain a connection. While there is still love, and very obviously and demonstratively still love, there is still a live relationship with our wives. If the love was ever to diminish over time then we are left with nothing.

    Ironically now, four months in, I feel ready for a day without tears. Every morning I wake up wondering whether this will be it, the breakthrough moment. To coin a phrase, perhaps not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. This evening I really thought I had done it - and then just before midnight, out of nowhere, and entirely unprompted, I collapsed into tears. Then I got angry with myself for not being able to stop crying. We don't make this easy for ourselves do we?

    Thank you again for your wise words and taking the trouble to provide me with reassurance that what I am feeling is entirely normal. You do know what to say to people.

  5. Gary, I have read all your blog entries now and they are so moving. Eventhough everyone is different, your emotions very closely match the ones I had. And even 4 years after Jane died, this gives me comfort; like some kind of validation that I did it 'right' after all, this grieving business. I hope blogging helps you in the same way it has helped me. It also had a wider effect of telling the people around me how I was feeling, when I wasn't able to speak the words out loud in front of them.

    I think that before we are widowed, we have such a warped idea of what that actually means, emotionally. All we ever see and read about it is about non-stop crying and the idea that all widows feel that life is either not worth living without the person they lost, or that they 'recover' in the space of a few weeks and callously get back to being happy. So even in grief, we worry about meeting the expectations of society, rather than concentrating on ourselves: am I doing this right? Will people think I am too emotional/not emotional enough etc. And if there ever is a time in life when we are allowed to think of ourselves, it is now, the time we are trying to heal, or at least trying to find the path back to some kind of normality.

    I expected grief to be a 24/7 black hole for years to come. In actual fact, it turned out to be a 24/7 thing in which I would have moments of utter despair when trying to pick up a bottle of milk from the supermarket shelf, and moments where I was perfectly genuinely smiling at the lady at the till when I went to pay for that milk.

    [hobby shrink alert]

    I used to compare it with being slapped in the face on a regular basis throughout the day. The actual slap hurts and stops you in your tracks. Might even make you cry. The rest of the time, your cheeks are tender from the last slap but you can go on with other things, whilst still feeling that burn. Until you get slapped again and the acute pain returns. initially, you get slapped all the time, with barely the chance to recover in between slaps. And either you eventually get slapped less, or the slaps are less hard. Or both. But there will always be moments, no matter how many years later, that suddenly you get slapped again. It is just that by then you will know there will be a period of calm after the shock and pain wears of.

    [/hobby shrink]

  6. Every post? Wow! Thank you. I feel quite humbled that anybody would want to do that.

    I think those societal expectations on 'how to do grief' are very strong for most of us. We know, or imagine we know, how we are expected to grieve and any deviation from that causes us to question ourselves and the depth of our love for our lost partner. I guess this is probably inevitable. Grief doesn't exist in a vacuum. Like everything it brings with it a pressure to conform. And in a sense, unless we have lost a partner before, which thankfully most of us haven't, those stereotypical responses are the only ones we have to model our behaviours on and judge ourselves against so its no wonder that they cause us so much angst. Apart from writing this blog the single best thing I have done in the four months since Louise died was to join WAY Widowed and Young, an organisation which exists to connect people who have lost partners under the age of 50. Meeting others in a similar position allows us to see beyond those expectations and better understand the much more complex and nuanced patterns of real life grief. And if you understand grief you will be better placed to deal with it. Not to 'beat it' of course, but to be able to manage it since its course won't take you by surprise.

    I'm not very far in to this journey (I used to get irritated at the use of the expression 'my journey' but this really does feel like a lengthy progression from one place to another quite different destination) so I'm not well qualified to comment on the face slapping, although I can quite see that even at four months the bursts of intense despair are slightly shallower and less frequent (which is more cause for self criticism of course). But I do look to the examples of others further down the line for hope of recovery and renewal and in this respect I draw inspiration from your story on your own blog. I greatly admire your career move into nursing and the fact that in a relatively short space of time you have achieved both that and happily re-married is one of the most powerful statements of hope I have come across. I know that the sadness and sense of loss will always be with me but you prove that it is possible to build another rewarding life around them. Thank you.